Church without a priest, but no loss of spirit

The Catholic community of Redfern, with the largest indigenous congregation in Australia, prays without a resident parish priest. But this could not stop yesterday’s celebration.

The state MP Linda Burney told the congregation of the historical significance of their church, St Vincent’s: "We celebrate the truth of Australia here, warts and all. This is the history we share. This is an honest place."

Ms Burney, the first indigenous member of the NSW Parliament, said the church was a bridge between the Aboriginal community and the church, and a welcoming place open to all people.

"The leadership within the church has to understand the history and the significance and fundamental principles of reconciliation," she said.

St Vincent’s has been without a priest for a month, since the departure of Father Peter Carroll. The congregation had written to the Archbishop of Sydney, George Pell, and the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart Order, claiming that Father Carroll was alienated from the largely indigenous congregation.

He had been at St Vincent’s for eight months, following the retirement of Father Ted Kennedy, who had often criticised Catholic leaders and spoken out for indigenous Australians during his 30-year tenure.

The congregation said the dispute with Father Carroll began when he demanded the removal of Aborigines on the footpath outside the church before Sunday Mass.

Catholic leaders have said another priest will be appointed. Yesterday’s mass was conducted by Father Isaac Koi.

Rhonda Ansiewicz, a member of the congregation, said the celebration was held because the congregation "felt battered over recent events".

"We needed to reclaim and celebrate the values and traditions that are central to Redfern."

Ms Burney said many Aborigines found safety and comfort in the church. Many Aboriginal funerals had been conducted there.

"Aboriginal people have a sense of ownership here. It’s an important place."

She said that Father Kennedy was one of the most loved individuals in this part of Sydney. It did not matter to him whether a person was black or white.

Ms Burney told of her own journey. Born in the Riverina, she remembers being told that Aborigines were the closest example to Stone Age man. She did not meet her natural father until 19 years ago.

She was brought up with decent principles but expected to leave school after year 9.

The history-maker told of the importance of "a strong spirit and good heart". Then the congregation went off to a celebratory barbecue.

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